Are you familiar with the mean voice in your head that loves to tell you that you are not a leader – preferably right before you are interviewing for a new role? Or that you are lazy – despite the fact you spent 20 hours in the past two days on your pitch deck? Or that nobody cares for what you have to say – when it’s your turn to speak up?
If you are human, chances are you know what I am talking about. While it is totally normal to hear this voice of self-doubt, it’s important – and possible! – to keep it in check and not let it run our lives. But before we get to the tools and strategies that help you do just that, let’s look at the Why:
Why does this voice exist in the first place, and why is it often so loud for women?
In a nutshell, this voice––often called the Inner Critic––is our brain’s well-meaning but misguided way to keep us safe. It tries to keep us from doing anything that may invite negative responses from others, because it develops at a time when we rely on others for everything, usually by around the time we are five years old. Think about this very young You and how they processed the big, scary world around them. No wonder they want to be safe, right? And that includes being self-critical before anybody else can criticize us.
This response happens for everybody, but women face some additional factors that can make our negative self-talk especially challenging. Lots of that is due to messages from family and/or society about what it means to be “a good girl”. More often than not, this includes being a straight-A student, not causing any trouble, supporting others, and not drawing attention (beyond making the honor roll, of course).
The more we internalize these expectations, the more our brain raises the alarm when we are about to take risks and seize growth opportunities, especially when our ideas of living our best lives and building our careers clash with the more traditional approaches.
But there’s good news: While we all have an Inner Critic who will continue to send us messages, there are ways to break its power.
Your negative voice is not the voice of truth or the core you.
When your Inner Critic tells you that you aren’t smart enough or that you don’t work hard enough, it’s tough. Not only does our mind know exactly where to poke; for many of us, it’s outright mean, throwing things at us we would never ever say to anybody else.
Despite that, we tend to take these statements as the truth, without questioning their validity. But what are they really? Sentences in our head – thoughts, not facts. And we don’t have to believe every sentence our mind produces. One example: Please think, “The Earth is flat.” Is it working? Sure is. Does that make the sentence true or you a flat-earther? No and no. This stands to show, you can think things that are actually false or that you don’t believe in. And even better: We can choose what to think!
Playing the Inner Critic’s game is not helpful.
Nobody likes to be criticized by others, but it can be downright dangerous for a very young human. This is why the Inner Critic jumps into action, criticizing us before the adults around us find fault with us and, in the worst case, don't take care of us. Considering this is basically your 5-year-old self at the wheel, this is not some reasonable feedback coming our way, and going along with its message won’t make it go away.
Depending on your background, you––like me––may even have learned that being your own worst critic is exactly how you are supposed to do life and become successful. And true, being hard on ourselves can help us get more done (for a while), but it’s not a sustainable, long-term motivator and, as many of us have experienced, may even pave the path to burnout.
In the end, we are not that different from cute puppies who learn a lot better with positive reinforcement. Same with people: Choosing carrot over stick is the right approach, any time.
If you want to change what’s going on, you’ll have to pay attention.
(Caveat: If you have serious old trauma you are still dealing with, please don’t take these steps without a therapist. )
Now, I would love to tell you that there is a quick-fix for shutting up the Inner Critic. I can’t because there isn’t. But the time and effort it takes to quiet the voice of self-doubt will be so worth it, I promise.
Acknowledge it exists
The first step is to give attention to the voice and its messages. Trying to ignore it may feel better, but we need to know what’s going on to rewire our brain. Take note of what your Inner Critic complains about over a period of time, for instance, a week. When you have a list, start with one topic. A good starting point is something that comes up regularly and really has a negative effect on you.
Inquire what’s behind it
The first time I did this, I chose a thought that interfered a lot with my life, namely “You are lazy!” My mind used to throw this at me no matter how many hours I had worked or how many things I had accomplished. I know that I am not lazy, but I felt guilty for taking any time off, even and especially on weekends. I journaled to understand the reasons, which went back to what I saw around me when I was little: #NoDaysOff could be our family crest.
Next, you’ll want to put some distance between yourself and the voice. A straightforward way to do so is commenting on its existence: “My Inner Critic is telling me again how lazy I am.”
You may want to add “Thanks for the heads-up, but I’ve got this. I’m good.” – or, if you are more like me, “Shut up, ****!” It’s really just a matter of personal style.
Turn the volume down
If you have an easy time calling up images with your eyes closed, there’s a neat visualization practice you can try: Whenever your Inner Critic attacks, imagine the voice coming from a vintage radio with knobs – and turn the volume down to the point where it’s nothing more than background noise. I know it sounds crazy, but it actually works!
There are many more ways to distance yourself from the voice of self-doubt in your head. To find the approach that resonates most with you, please experiment a little (without beating yourself up for it!).
Establish a new thought
In the last step, you want to create a thought that truly serves you. Think of it as a kind personal mantra. In my example, I decided to counter the negative “You are lazy” with the positive replacement thought “It’s important I give my body time to rest.”
Again, you might have to play with different sentences until you find the one that really resonates, and that’s okay. When you have a thought that feels good, put up a few reminders. Personally, I am a huge fan of writing my mantras on the bathroom mirror (with an erasable marker). Alternatively, you could use sticky notes and post them to your computer screen or a kitchen cabinet or wherever you see them regularly.
Rinse and repeat
When the new thought has become familiar territory, it’s time to look at other messages that fuel your self-doubts and keep you stuck. You know the spiel now, so the fact that the Inner Critic won’t go away completely, will be a lot less bothersome.
You have the power to change your thoughts.
When you build awareness for what your negative self-talk truly is––basically, a bunch of thoughts meant to keep you safe––you can lessen its impact and get to the point where the Inner Critic has little to no power over you and your life.
Over to you: How are you dealing with your negative inner voice? Which tools and strategies help you master your mind?
If you want me to know more or talk through your personal situation, please reach out. I’m happy to chat.